WORKERS' RIGHTS

She restores Valentine's in flower farms

Valentine's is the most important period in flower farms, but it is also the period rights of workers are most abused, says Eunice Waweru

In Summary

• Several recent studies show that 65-75 per cent of workers in Kenyan flower farms are female.

• While women in those farms are now safer, Eunice says more still needs to be done, especially in the remaining farms.

Eunice Waweru, the founder of Workers Right Watch, wishes women working in flower farms can enjoy the Valentine's Day
Eunice Waweru, the founder of Workers Right Watch, wishes women working in flower farms can enjoy the Valentine's Day
Image: JOHN MUCHANGI

Since she lost her husband in 2016, Eunice Waweru has not gone out on a Valentine’s date.

Yet February 14 is one of the most important dates on her calendar every year.

Usually, she is to be found in her Kiambu office, where she coordinates the activities of Workers' Rights Watch, a non-profit she founded in 2009.

 
 
 
 
 

But today, she has travelled to Naivasha, where she is speaking to a group of young women about sex.

“Nani ashawahi teremsha bendera by force,” she asks them, meaning who has ever been coerced into sex while at work. Eunice speaks fast, in a haranguing but cheeky tone.

The women work in one of Naivasha's sprawling flower farms. They prepare the farms from October every year and plant the flowers to be ready for February, but never enjoy the Valentine's Day.

Several recent studies show that 65-75 per cent of workers in Kenyan flower farms are female.

Valentine's Day is the fulcrum of this sector. It is so important that some farms export as much as 70 per cent of their annual production around February.

 
 
 

“This is also the period workers are most vulnerable,” Eunice says.

When farms move into peak production ahead of Valentine’s Day, women seeking jobs or lighter duties are often sexually harassed by managers.

 

“They also leave work very late during peak production, sometimes at midnight every day,” Eunice says.

Kenya is now the world’s third or fourth biggest exporter of cut flowers, according to the Kenya Flower Council.

Waweru says her desire is to make the Valentine's as fulfilling for women who produce flowers, as it is for lovers who buy the flowers.

Eunice Waweru, the director of Workers Rights Watch, in a past interview.
Eunice Waweru, the director of Workers Rights Watch, in a past interview.
Image: COURTESY

In 2012, the Kenya Human Rights Commission interviewed workers in 15 farms in Naivasha, Thika and Athi River.

KHRC found only less than half of the farms were free of sexual harassment.

“Sixty-seven per cent of respondents reported sanctions against sexual harassment are not adequate to deter the vice,” the study, Wilting in Bloom, says.

In 2015, her organisation, Workers Rights Watch, engaged eight flower farms in a pilot project to adopt a model sexual harassment policy that would then be scaled up to the entire flower sector in Kenya. The engagement was done in conjunction with select NGOs in Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia and Dutch non-profit Hivos.

The project was implemented between 2017 and 2019 in Kiambu, Kajiado, Nakuru and Laikipia counties.

“When we started piloting, most farms lacked policies on sexual harassment, but some farms already had gender committees to deal with such issues,” she says.

But many of the gender committees were woefully inefficient. They were composed of general farm workers and were scared of cases that involved their seniors, and most cases did.

Waweru says they trained the workers and their managers and supervisors. The gender committees were also trained on how to properly handle cases brought before them.

The project was endorsed by the Kenya Flower Council and certification body Fairtrade International. KFC and Fairtrade now require farms affiliated to them to comply with the policies.

The management of the farms is required to implement the workplace sexual harassment policies, while the gender committees and committees formed by workers' unions monitor the compliance.

“There has been tremendous progress, especially in farms that were piloted,” Eunice says.

"Women in those farms can now boldly speak out. The gender committees have recommended action against those who perpetrated sexual harassment and followed up to ensure action is taken."

While women in those farms are now safer, Eunice says more still needs to be done, especially in the remaining farms.

"In time, I hope these women can all afford not just the flowers they produce but the joy that comes with this day."